A nearly-full slate of games on the WCHA docket this week, with only Minnesota and North Dakota with the week off. The other 10 teams will be in action against each other, so barring a whole bunch of splits, we could get some clarity to the playoff picture come Sunday morning.
1 — Minnesota Duluth (Last week: 1)
The Gophers have a solid lead in the WCHA standings and the Bulldogs had their worst weekend in a while against Tech. But I still give the edge to UMD, by a nose, because of the other factors — overall record, Pairwise ranking and KRACH ranking. The ‘Dogs are No. 1 in both sets of computer rankings and I think most teams would love to go through a “rough patch” consisting of a 2-2-1 record. Heck, that’s reason to celebrate in Anchorage.
2 — Minnesota (Last week: 2)
Despite leading the league and sweeping St. Cloud State, a feat not nearly as impressive with the Huskies being down SIX FORWARDS from the start of the year, the Gophers still sit perilously close to the Pairwise bubble, entering play this weekend ninth. That’s comfortable for now, but say the Gophs run into their own “rough patch” down the stretch. If they enter the WCHA playoffs in 11th or 12th, that will cause some nerves to be frayed in Minneapolis. And with games at Denver and at Nebraska-Omaha, a “rough patch” isn’t, you know, entirely out of the question.
3 — North Dakota (Last week: 3)
Sweeping Wisconsin in Grand Forks isn’t that great of an accomplishment, when you consider the Badgers have won just once on the road all season. But a sweep is a sweep and four points in late January, especially in a league as tightly contested as this one, will be huge come mid-March. The victories also moved UND onto the verge of the Pairwise bubble, but NoDak still has plenty of work to do in that area. UND enters the weekend tied for fourth, but could conceivably exit it in seventh place. And with the bye, there is nothing it can do about it.
4 — Denver (Last week: 4)
This is the part of the year we’ve all been waiting for, as DU is finally starting to get healthy. Goalie Sam Brittain returned last week and was victorious in his debut, stopping 24 shots in a 6-3 win over Anchorage. How quickly he gets up to speed could help shape how the Pioneers fit into the postseason picture. If Denver can get four points against CC this weekend, not only will the Pioneers take home the Gold Pan, but they will set themselves up for a chance to pass Minnesota when the Gophers head to the Mile High City next weekend.
5 — Colorado College (Last week: 5)
The Tigers have no games remaining against Minnesota but have a big time trip to Duluth looming at the end of the month. How important that series will be will be determined by the next six games. After a series against Denver this weekend, CC plays at Bemidji and hosts Omaha — not an easy task. Just one point separates the two Colorado schools in the standings and CC trails DU in the Pairwise, meaning this weekend’s series could be make or break for Scott Owens and his crew.
6 — Michigan Tech (Last week: 9)
This week’s big mover is Michigan Tech, and why not? The Huskies rallied to score nine straight goals on the weekend to claim three huge points in the WCHA standings. It’s hard to believe, but Tech is still very much in the hunt for a home-ice spot, and with games at 11th place Minnesota State this weekend, the Huskies are in must-win mode if they hope to stay there. But after an emotional weekend in Duluth, this weekend’s set in Mankato has letdown written all over it. We will see if the Huskies really are a different bunch with how they respond to that challenge.
7 — Nebraska-Omaha (Last week: 6)
This could be the team nobody wants to play come March. Last season, the Mavericks grabbed all the headlines with their surprising upper-third finish in the WCHA standings. This year, Omaha is languishing as a middle of the pack team, capable of laying a goose egg (losing to Alabama-Huntsville) or rising to the occasion (beating Duluth). The Mavericks exorcised their Beaver demons by taking three points in northern Minnesota back in November, and could really use a similar weekend to help their home ice cause.
8 — Minnesota State (Last week: 11)
Don’t laugh. These bottom five teams have all been pretty bad this season, some early (like the Mavericks) and some of late (everyone else). MSU dismantled Bemidji at the Sanford Center last Saturday in a 5-2 win, but may have played better the night before in a 2-1 loss. The Mavericks have split three series in a row, winning on Saturday all three times. Seven of MSU’s league losses have been by one goal, with another one a two-goal defeat because of an empty-netter. This team has lost 2-1 three times this season, including each of their last two losses. If MSU can start getting to 3 or 4 consistently, this team will win more than it loses, especially with Phil Cook back in a groove in goal.
9 — St. Cloud State (Last week: 7)
You have to feel bad for Bob Motzko and the Huskies. Nothing has gone right for this team. I spoke with assistant coach Mike Gibbons this week and you could sense the frustration. With so many good forwards gone because of injury or departure, SCSU has had to try and win games with third and fourth liners masquerading as top-6 forwards. They’ve had to pull defensemen in to play forward. With so many guys out or gone, this is a team that tends to get tired late in the game and especially late in the weekend.
10 — Bemidji State (Last week: 10)
Goalscoring is a problem in Bemidji and Jordan George can’t do it alone. This team has scored three goals or less in five straight games overall and in seven straight games against WCHA teams. The Beavers were outplayed last weekend by Minnesota State and were saved by Dan Bakala Friday night, who stopped 39 shots in a 2-1 win that easily could have been 5-2 or 6-2 the other way. BSU’s next six games are as tough as it gets with trips to Omaha and Minneapolis sandwiched around a visit from CC before the soft landing of a home series against Wisconsin and a trip to Anchorage.
11 — Wisconsin (Last week: 8 )
At least teams like Minnesota State and Bemidji State have shown they can win on the road. The Badgers have won just once away from the Kohl Center and with a home playoff series becoming even more of a pipe dream every day, the Badgers will likely open the playoffs on the road. And while Wisconsin has a 11-4-1 record in Madison, over half of this wins have come against power houses Alaska-Anchorage, RIT and Mercyhurst.
12 — Alaska-Anchorage (Last week: 12)
Depending on whether you’re a glass half-full or half-empty kind of guy, this weekend’s series against No. 1 UMD is either well-timed or ill-timed. Afterall, the Bulldogs are in the midst of that “rough patch” discussed earlier. But after being embarrassed on home ice last weekend — and that was an embarrassment — the defending champs are unlikely to show a similar effort. And it’s not as though the Seawolves are playing well — UAA is riding a seven-game losing streak, it’s longest in six years.